I've written before about my mixed feelings regarding how some of these programs are run. At several programs I've observed, people are placed in settings where expectations of professionalism are nothing like they are in a typical work environment, they behave according to expectations of their current setting, then are assessed as not having the skills necessary to be professional in a typical work setting. As I've said many times, "treat someone like they're five years old and they'll act like it."
To give some background, some individuals in supported work programs are contracted out to perform labor such as cleaning or stocking (and might eventually be hired directly to do this type of work), while most of the individuals perform supervised tasks such as sorting, assembling, or packaging items. Common tasks include putting labels on envelopes or putting a certain number of items into a retail package and sealing it. These tasks can be adapted for people with various skill levels and can be closely supervised. One individual who can count reliably might be assigned to count objects, while another who has reliable motor skills might run the bags through a sealer. An individual who cannot count might be given a product that is packaged with one item per bag, or might be given an egg carton or similar aid to help with counting. Almost every individual with the exception of people with the most severe disabilities can participate in this type of work and be paid for it.
With automation and overseas outsourcing become more available and less expensive, it is becoming more profitable for companies to have their sorting and assembling done by machine or in a foreign country than to have it done by workers with disabilities. This means that these work programs often have a lack of work for individuals to do, sometimes for several days. Because most of these individuals require supervision at all times, they continue to attend the program regardless of whether there is work. If they were in a community where supported work was not available, they would likely attend a day center each day and would never have the opportunity for paid work.
At several programs I've visited, the program response to a lack of available work is to insist that individuals seat in assigned seats and participate in unpaid assigned activities. Individuals might be asked to complete worksheets or do similar tasks. In my view, this is unrelated to real-world vocational skills and is insulting to these individuals. I've also observed that individuals report resentment and feel disrespected. And indeed, it does seem strange and disrespectful to ask individuals to complete unpaid work for staff convenience. When I work in settings where I'm paid for each therapy session, no one tells me how I have to spend the time when I'm not seeing clients. If Blue Cross or MassHealth sent me a letter telling me how I have to spend my free time, I'd quickly be on the phone with the attorney general. Even in salaried or hourly settings, I've never been given expectations for my downtime aside from the basic expectation that I be respectful of those around me. Why should individuals who are not being paid be asked to do anything other than being basically respectful?
At the setting I visited last week, I saw staff offering individuals choices of leisure activities such as tossing around a football in the parking lot or watching movies, but staff made it clear that these were truly choices and were not required activities. I saw a number of individuals looking through magazines they'd brought, socializing, or listening to their iPods. What I noticed most was that aside from the infrequent comments regarding disappointment at the lack of work, the individuals were happy to be there. I didn't hear the usual complaints about how "I have to come to this place that has no work for us, so they make me fill out worksheets."
I'm now going to end with a shameless plug in which I encourage everyone to consider hiring individuals with disabilities. Just about any business has roles for these folks, whether it's janitorial work, collecting recycling bins, answering phones, sorting, assembling, or making copies. Some individuals, depending on the extent of their disability, can legally be paid below the minimum wage (this isn't actually a bad thing; it enables them to keep their other benefits so they can get healthcare, housing, disability services, transportation, etc.) and the business might qualify for tax breaks. The programs I know of off the top of my head in the Boston area are Center House Enterprises, East Middlesex Industries, and Work Inc.. If you're in another area, you can likely find a similar program by contacting your state's mental health or developmental disabilities department and asking for names of vocational programs.